Left libertarianism is a fairly recently coined term for a fairly old idea. Those people who embrace this view agree with other libertarians in holding that individuals should be free. They regard each of us as full self-owners. However, they differ from what we generally understand by the term libertarian in denying the right to private property. We own ourselves, but we do not own nature, at least not as individuals. Left libertarians embrace the view that all natural resources, land, oil, gold, trees, and so on should be held collectively. To the extent that individuals make use of these commonly owned goods, they must do so only with the permission of society, a permission granted only under the proviso that a certain payment for their use be made to society at large. In effect, left libertarians, although prepared to recognized private property in oneself, are socialists with respect to all other resources. We each have equal rights over nature.
A great many writers have subscribed to one or another form of this ideology. Even John Locke, the apostle of capitalism in the eyes of many, assumed that, in some respects, nature was a “commons” and devoted a portion of his Treatises of Government to the issue of how individuals can by rights become exclusive owners of bits of nature, such as farms or forests. Locke regarded this problem as soluble, however, and did not conclude that we are all bound to make payment to society at large for the privilege of making use of the natural resources. By contrast, the 19th-century American writer Henry George advocated a single tax on land, holding that land ultimately belonged to all in common and could not be the exclusive property of any individual—as was true of our bodies and our labor.
The question arises as to whether left libertarianism is both coherent and plausible. Defenders of libertarianism as we generally understand the term have offered two extremely strong philosophical objections to the left-libertarian view. The first centers on the distinction that left libertarianism makes between self-ownership and nature ownership. This distinction, on careful consideration, really makes no sense. The second objection is that left libertarians are unable to explain how it is that nature comes to be communally owned, as it must be if their claims that individual owners owe a rental or tax to the community for employing natural items. In addition to these two objections, the issue of which system is more efficient in the creation and distribution of wealth divides these two approaches.
It is an essential aspect of self-ownership that people are to be able to do with themselves as they please, that is, that they be allowed to engage in activity under their own guidance, in accordance with their own ideas. However, if they are prohibited from using anything outside themselves, it is hard to see that there is much that one is free to do. The Stoic philosophers taught that our minds are always free no matter how enslaved we may otherwise be. But most of us would find this stoic freedom at best impossibly confining, if not a fraud. We want to walk about, work as we like, play as we like—a “free” life inside our heads is not enough. Libertarians embrace the principle that we may do what we like, including using those things we find outside of our own bodies, up to the point where our use of those things imposes damages, costs, and losses on others. Within those limits, we should be able to appropriate whatever we can use. Owning an object means being able, reliably, to continue to use it in future, not just now. Why, the libertarian will ask, should we not be able to do so if the theory we all accept is that of general liberty for all?
The second point is closely related to the first. Left libertarians claim that humankind collectively is somehow the owner of nature. This notion raises the following question: How did humanity come by it? The left libertarian supplies no real answer: We are simply informed that it is “just ours.” If this statement is asserted as a fundamental intuition, it is a highly disputable one. Surely, the obvious position on this matter is that nature, as such, is simply inert and not “owned” by anybody—it is just there, and what we do about it is up to us.
True, the property libertarian wants to say that our ownership of our own bodies also is in some way fundamental, and many libertarians assert this self-ownership as a natural right or intuited moral truth. But they need not do so. It is possible to hold, for example, as some libertarians do, that we claim ownership of ourselves as part of a social contract. The question then arises as to whether this contract extends to the ownership of things outside ourselves. Many theorists, including John Locke, have argued that it does. The left libertarian has an analogous problem: How can he distinguish between my ownership of myself—which, obviously, I cannot have made by my own labor, which is exactly like other natural resources in that respect—and my nonownership of everything else?
A less philosophical, but more practical, question concerns the efficiency of the social system in which natural resources are in principle excluded from private ownership. It is arguable that private ownership is simply more efficient and, as such, really better for all. Certainly most economic theorists have convincingly argued that socialism is certain to be inefficient (or, as Mises put it, in practice impossible). Why then should a system of resource ownership be any better? Indeed, there is every evidence that the socialist regimes this century have botched the job of efficiently producing and distributing wealth about as thoroughly as could be feared. When land, coal, and so on are used by individual people in such a way as to maximize those people’s returns, resources will be used by those who can make the best use of them. In the end, this scenario makes the poor in private-property societies better off than the middle class in socialist societies. Surely it makes sense that this system of ownership should equally apply in the area of resources.
Gwartney, James, and Richard Stroup. What Everyone Should Know about Economics and Prosperity. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Fraser Institute 1993.
Lester, Jan. Escape from Leviathan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Mises, Ludwig von. Liberalism. San Francisco: Cobden Press, 1985.Vallentyne, Peter, and Hillel Steiner, eds. The Origins of Left Libertarianism. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
Originally published .